Play to honour couple who fought for justice in the Burston school strike
- Credit: Archant
From around the country money flowed toward the small Norfolk village, and every donation was marked by a brick. Put together the bricks of Burston created a building that stands as a monument to a married couple's defiance, their pupils' eagerness to learn and support their teachers, and the generosity of working people nationwide who were determined despite their own hardships that these children should have the education they deserved.
Today many people are familiar with the story of the small, chapel-like structure adorned with the names of donors, from the Optical Glass Workers' Society to Norwich Independent Labour Party – but what about the more intimate, personal story of the couple in question?
A century ago Europe was on the brink of war but in the village near Diss, people were preoccupied by the power struggle evolving on their own doorstep. It was a time when many Norfolk children were pressured to leave school in their early teens to work on the fields, and when the church and landowners brooked little dissent in their rule over rural parishioners. Education was meant to be guaranteed, but in places such as Burston it counted for little against the will of the farmers and the clergy.
Annie Schollick was born in Cheshire in 1864, Tom Higdon five years later in Somerset. They married in 1896, lived in London for six years and then moved to Wood Dalling, near Fakenham, where they were appointed as headmistress and assistant teacher. The Higdons were Christian Socialists and had a deep concern that the children in their charge should have every opportunity to find their own way in life and attain their potential, rather than remain illiterate and condemned to a life in rural poverty. They petitioned for improvements to the chilly, unhygienic schoolroom and protested when farmers took their children away from lessons to help on the land. Their radicalism put them at odds with the education board and they developed a reputation as troublemakers, not helped by Tom having punched one of the farmers in question. Ultimately the board gave them a choice: move on or accept the sack.
So in 1911 they moved to Burston to work at the village's Church of England school, but soon the same troubles arose. Again Annie Higdon was headteacher and Tom her junior; teaching was her great passion, politics his, and together they formed a potent combination. They sought to teach the children about the wider world, and Annie devised a curriculum that included subjects such as French, typing and astronomy. But their arrival was soon followed by that of a new rector, the Rev Charles Eland, a stern establishment figure who demanded respect from his social inferiors and who had been installed as chairman of the School Management Body. In 1913 Tom accepted an invitation to run for the parish council against the Rev Eland. Higdon and several other candidates who shared his views won, and the rector lost. It was only a matter of time before the Higdons were relieved of their duties.
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What the Rev Eland did not expect was that 66 of the school's pupils would side with their teachers and refuse to continue attending school. Led by 13-year-old Violet Potter they went out on strike, marching a circular route while playing instruments and holding banners that read 'We are out for justice' and 'We want our teachers back'.
So the Higdons continued to teach them: first in a marquee on the green, then in a building owned by a local carpenter, and finally in what became known as the 'strike school'. It was April 1, 1914, that the strike began, and 25 years later that it ended – thus becoming the longest strike in history. Violet Potter's niece Anne May says: 'Villagers were fined up to half a week's wages and evicted from their glebe land for their commitment to their children's teachers. Support came from as far and wide as suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and Leo Tolstoi, the son of the internationally known author. Our parents refused to be intimidated and we are enormously proud of them and the people of Burston.'
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On Tuesday, the centenary of the strike's beginning, a new play opens at Diss High School before touring to nine venues around Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as a couple of dates in Leicester (see panel). In collaboration with the Trades Union Congress and the Burston Memorial Committee, which has held a rally at the school every September since 1984, it is the work of The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company. Based in nearby Pulham Market, the company aims to encourage emerging theatrical talent, both in writing and acting, and find fresh ways of exploring East Anglian history. This is its fourth touring production and second original play, the first being Love Left Hanging, based on the infamous Red Barn Murder in Polstead, Suffolk. The Bricks of Burston reunites director Cordelia Spence with young Norwich-based co-writers Emma MacLusky and Anthony Cule, all of them graduates of the University of East Anglia.
It was Cordelia who proposed the subject, and Emma and Anthony who then spent a good while working out how to turn it into a play. They realised that behind the familiar narrative lay a less remarked upon story, a personal one that took place between the Higdons when the school's doors were closed and the children at home.
'What fascinated me and drew me to the story,' says Cordelia, 'and the team in general, was the relationship between Tom and Annie Higdon, the couple at the heart of the strike. There had not to my knowledge been a stage piece written about them. We were really interested because by all accounts they were a devoted couple and there were a few things that struck us.'
One was that Annie was five years older than Tom, another was that she was the headteacher and he the assistant teacher: put together these facts hinted at an unusual dynamic within a marriage of that time.
'And the accounts we used for our research show that Annie was an exceptional teacher,' Cordelia adds, 'the sort of teacher who would go on teaching as long as the children wanted to learn. As someone who's been a teacher myself and a mother that fascinated me.'
For Tom, on the other hand, 'teaching was his bread and butter but not his passion,' she says. 'This is theatre and we've taken a bit of licence, but there must have been times when Annie must have thought: 'Not again Tom!''
The play is in two acts and has a cast of three characters, Tom and Annie Higdon and the Rev Eland, played by Tom Grace, Georgia Robson and Alex Helm respectively. The intention, the company says, is that 'this powerful and touching piece of theatre will explore memory, remembrance, relationships and change'. As Cordelia points out, the strike played out over a period of immense change, the pivotal quarter of a century between the beginnings of the two world wars. 'You've got these monumental world events – you've got the slaughter of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Depression and the rise of fascism, and throughout it all, in a little village in Norfolk this couple of are fighting the good fight, clinging together and standing fast. It's unbelievable really.'
Their determination to fight against the poverty and injustice inherent in their society saw them blackballed, reviled and persecuted by many but they also provoked loyalty, trust and devotion from those they battled to help. Anthony, who's 26 and teaches on the UEA's drama course, emphasised that they've tried to 'make it about the human effect that this historical event had on the couple'. He hadn't heard of the Burston school strike until Cordelia mentioned it, and hopes that the play will raise awareness among his generation. His co-writer Emma, aged 22, explained that they spent time 'bouncing ideas off each other' and researching the place and its past before they could find a way into the story.
'We went to the museum,' she says – the school building, which now contains exhibits telling the story of the strike – 'and walked around Burston so we got to know it, and read books from the museum getting more accounts of the history. We were pulling sources from different places. For a long time we felt quite restricted by the history: there was so much fantastic material but we were almost starting to work in a documentary style rather than bringing something new and bringing our own mark to it.
'We hit a few blocks because we were focusing so much on the facts and not seeing the real story of these two amazing people. But then we pulled right back and decided to focus on what we found the most interesting part of the whole story, which for us is the relationship between Tom and Annie, and all the incredible pressures that they went through and what that must have done to their relationship.'
The Higdons' devotion to the cause and one another was such that the strike only ended with Tom's death in 1939. Once of the historical texts they drew from 'describes Annie's face at Tom's funeral,' says Cordelia, 'with his coffin in the strike school and Annie singing The Lord is My Shepherd, and her devastation because they were so devoted to each other.'
After his death the last 11 remaining children attending the strike school transferred to the county school. Annie lived another seven years and was buried beside her husband in the graveyard of Burston's small church.
What they achieved has never been forgotten, however, and this new play should help the Higdons' and their pupils' bravery to inspire a new generation.
See www.stuffofdreamstheatre.com for full details of performances and how to book tickets. For more on the Burston strike school and rallies, see www.burstonstrikeschool.wordpress.com